Journey to the West


POSTED: Sunday, December 06, 2009

Tucson, Ariz. » Attracted by the Old West's allure? Tired of rainy season? To soak up frontier spirit and sunshine, saddle up and move 'em out, pardner—to Tucson, in southern Arizona, where the sun shines 300 days a year and the Wild West still lives.

Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges in a Sonora Desert valley. Before experiencing the “;Old Pueblo,”; as Tucson is called, I'd thought deserts were merely sandy wastelands—auwe, was I wrong. A stellar place to learn about this unique eco-system is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a 21-acre, open-air natural history enclave, botanical garden and zoo located west of downtown Tucson. It features 300 animal species, including Gila monsters (Jurassic geckos on steroids), rattlesnakes (yikes!), prairie dogs, birds of prey and mountain lions, amid 1,200 types of plants. Talk about a walk on the wild side.





        Westward Look Resort: www.westwardlook.com; (800) 722-2500

Hilton El Conquistador: www.hiltonelconquistador.com; (520) 544-5000


Old Tucson: www.oldtucson.com; (520)883-0100.


Tombstone: www.tombstone.org; (800) 457-3423




I took a ride on the wild side at Tucson's sprawling Westward Look Resort below the Santa Catalina Mountains. At the stables I mounted a trusty steed named Bootjack and rode out into the Southwestern scenic splendor, led by a dungarees-clad cowgirl named Grace who'd grown up on a New Mexico ranch and been a wrangler for 22 years. Don't let names like “;Death Valley”; fool you—the desert teems with life. We saw morning doves, red tail hawks, quails and woodpeckers among ocotillo (spiny stick-like plants) and a variety of cactus: cholla (tree coral-like formations with fuzz-like needles and flowers), prickly pear (spiky green paddles stuck together) and saguaro, Arizona's signature plant. With their distinctive arms, the mighty saguaro cacti grow up to 50 feet and live 200 years, only growing in the 48th state and Mexico. Fortunately, during our ride we didn't run into any javelinas—wild pigs—or sticklers.

The 80-acre Westward Look, which derives its name from a poem, also features trekking trails with lyrical monikers. The paved Hummingbird Trail stretches for 2.3 miles, while the unpaved Saguaro Trail is a 2/3 -mile loop. En route you may see roadrunners, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, numerous signed plants and breathtaking vistas of the 9,157-foot-high Catalinas, where black bear and white-tailed deer still roam. At the green “;Chef's Garden”; oasis, where many vegetables served at the Westward's eateries grow, grapevines hang from a leafy archway.

The Westward's architecture blends in perfectly with its Sonoran surroundings. Most of the 240-ish earth-toned units are in the Santa Fe style, with flat roofs, smooth adobe walls and vigas (long beams protruding through outer facades). Although derived from ancient indigenous pueblo and Spanish colonial designs, the comfortable accommodations' interiors have high-tech features, including high-speed wireless Internet and 42-inch flat-panel TV screens. The resort also has a state-of-the-art fitness room, plus the Sonoran Spa, where massage therapist Mandy administered soothing aromatherapy unto me, with detoxifying juniper, rosemary and cypress scents, combined with deep tissue Swedish massage.

The Westward evolved out of a hacienda-style home built in 1912 by the Watson family, only six months after the then-territory of Arizona attained statehood. Their living room, with its ample fireplace, wrought-iron candelabra, exposed log beams and ocotillo roofing, is now the Vigas Room, the Westward's center. Its Tinaja Desert Gallery exhibits prints of the modern Santa Claus, which illustrator Haddon Sundblom created here for Coca-Cola ads in 1931, plus stuffed Southwestern mammals, reptiles, minerals, tribal artifacts. Outside is a Spanish-style courtyard; what's now the gift shop was once a guest room—its most noteworthy inhabitant was Dean Martin, who preferred this chamber because the concrete walls made it cooler.

What was Dino doing here? Making a movie at Old Tucson Studios, where Martin co-starred with John Wayne in Howard Hawks' 1959 “;Rio Bravo”; and 1965's “;The Sons of Katie Elder.”; As in Hawaii, films and TV productions play a major role in attracting visitors to Arizona. As Stephen Keith, who portrays gambler/gunman Doc Holliday in Tombstone theatrical productions, told me: “;Hollywood's why they're here.”;

The drive to Old Tucson, located west of downtown near the Desert Museum, sets the stage, with stunning cactus-studded scenery. The Wild West ambiance and dry desert terrain here is such an ideal example of classic cowboy country that countless Westerns have been shot at Old Tucson since 1939. To celebrate its 70th anniversary the “;Hollywood in the Desert”; presented a 2009 retrospective of never-before-displayed stills of Westerns filmed here, including Gene Autry's “;The Last Roundup”; (1947); James Stewart's “;Winchester '73”; (1950); Ronald Reagan's “;The Last Outpost”; (1951); Paul Newman's “;Hombre”; (1967); and Clint Eastwood's “;The Outlaw Josey Wales”; (1976).

Fans view posters, costumes (including Frank Sinatra's pink long johns from 1970's “;Dirty Dingus Magee”;) and movie sets: the mission church from Steve Martin's 1986 “;Three Amigos!”;; a vintage locomotive; “;Rio Bravo's”; saloon, bank and doctor's office; the cantina, creek, jail and ranch house built for “;Rio Lobo”; starring the Duke (Wayne, not Kahanamoku); McLintock Hotel from Wayne's “;McLintock!”; (1963). They're used as souvenir shops and cafes; drinks are served by costumed saloon girls inside a cavernous bar with a stage, which, like the film village itself, can be rented for private gatherings.

Like L.A.'s Universal and Warner Bros. studios, productions are still shot at Old Tucson, which is also a theme park, featuring attractions and activities with cowboy ambiance—a spooky mine and a stream to pan for gold. Wannabe cowpokes can practice their marksmanship at a shooting gallery, ride a horse, stagecoach or railroad (but watch out for train robbers!).

Old Tucson also presents live Western-related performances, such as Miss Kitty's saloon can-can revue or shoot-outs. I witnessed a thrilling re-enactment of Billy the Kid's getaway from the Lincoln County Courthouse, with gunplay, horseplay and death-defying stunts. Afterwards, city slickers posed for pictures with the make-believe gunslingers. Good fun!

The 1993 film “;Tombstone”; starring Kurt Russell was made here; my favorite Old Tucson set is the pen where Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shot the 1957 film “;Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”; But if you want to see where the Wild West's most famous shoot-out actually took place, the real Tombstone is 90 minutes from Tucson. Now a tourist trap, Tombstone's “;town too tough to die”; nickname could be “;the town too touristy to die.”; Nevertheless, frontier aficionados are sure to have a blast there.

Amid gunshots and the jingle-jangle of spurs, near the O.K. Corral there's Tombstone Huckleberry Productions' one-act play and the Wild Bunch's re-enactment of the 1881 gunfight between Marshal Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Clanton gang. (The Tombstone Vigilantes offer hangings by appointment only.) Cheesy animatronic mannequins depicting participants with dusters, cowboy hats and six-shooters are at the O.K. Corral itself, accompanied by taped narration. Tombstone Historama's multimedia presentation, narrated by Vincent Price, offers kitschy Americana.

Boot Hill—final resting place for those gunned down at the O.K. Corral—remains authentic, with humorous headstone epitaphs such as: “;Here lies Lester Moore/ Four slugs from a .44/ No Les/ No Moore.”; Boot Hill is segregated, with different burial sections for whites, blacks, Asians. Down the separate-but-equal Hill is a monument, its inscription thanking Indian friends of Tombstone's Jews.

Tombstone has several museums, including the Fly Photo Studio featuring Geronimo photos; my favorite is the Bird Cage Theatre, an ex-bordello. According to Billy Hunley, whose family has owned it since the 1930s, Josephine Marcus (portrayed by Hawaii-shot “;China Beach”; co-star Dana Delany in “;Tombstone”;) plied her trade in the casino-saloon's basement (where a purportedly authentic 19th-century birth control device is displayed) before she married Earp. There are still around 120 bullet holes in the Bird Cage, where 26 people are believed to have been killed. Hunley said he'd like to time travel back to 1881 Tombstone—but he'd “;bring lots of ammo.”;

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Tucson's superb Hilton El Conquistador at the foot of the picturesque Catalinas continues the Wild West atmospherics. Groups may hold functions at the Western-themed Last Territory amid a gigantic stuffed black bear and stagecoach in a cantina-like setting. Guests enjoy exquisite mountain views, a Jacuzzi and the water slide at the Desert Springs Oasis, a palm-fringed faux canyon-like water park, suggestive of a popular nearby swimming hole, Sabino Canyon. El Conquistador provides tennis, horseback riding, a country club and Tucson's largest golf resort, with 45 holes. Dos Locos offers delicious Nuevo Latino fine dining, and on weekends Sundance Cafe serves sumptuous breakfast buffets.

In winter Tucson's average daily temperature is around 67 degrees; rainfall is less than one inch per month. During summer there are monsoons and 100-plus degree heat. But the off-season advantage is that the Westward and Hilton lure guests with extremely affordable packages.

The Old Pueblo's sublime havens, sunshine and Wild West panache suggest Arthur Hugh Clough's poem: “;In front, the sun climbs slowly. ... But westward, look. ... The land is bright.”; From Tucson to Tombstone, it's Paniolo Country on a grand scale at the Grand Canyon state. Giddyap!

Ed Rampell is a former Makaha resident who co-wrote “;Made in Paradise: Hollywood's Films of Hawaii”; and “;The South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies.”;